Real Salt Lake officially started preseason camp Monday amid an ownership transition that’s still yet to be resolved. And while the uncertainty surrounding the organization will surely continue until a new owner emerges, at least for the moment the men on the field can answer questions regarding what’s happening on it rather than off it.
The 2020 season was a difficult one for RSL. It didn’t make the playoffs after finishing 11th in the Western Conference. It scored just 25 goals, the lowest in the conference. And that’s not even mentioning that the world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that greatly shifted calendars in every sport.
But RSL hopes 2021 can be different — or at least a step in the right direction. Major League Soccer plans to play a 34-game season, giving teams more opportunities to build rhythm and consistency. And even though the team has largely the same personnel as it did last year save for a few additions, RSL’s goal is still to make the playoffs.
Here are five burning questions as RSL begins preseason.
1. What is the latest on the ownership transition?
MLS took over the sale process from owner Dell Loy Hansen back in early January. Since then, however, there has been radio silence. Are Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith or that international group still interested? What other individuals or groups are out there kicking the tires on buying the organization? Will the team get moved?
League commissioner Don Garber has answered some of those questions in the past couple of months. He said the league has “absolutely no plans” on moving the franchise out of Salt Lake City. He has also said there are several parties interested in buying the team and he feels confident the sale will get done sometime in 2021.
All of this matters because until there is a new owner, RSL is in limbo on many fronts. The front office doesn’t have discretionary funds to get a designated player, so it has to be creative as it tries to improve the roster. John Kimball is running day-to-day operations, but Garber says he reports directly to the league. And there has to be at least some anxiety about what will happen to people’s jobs when the new owner finally does come in.
Through all that, the club has tried to find its identity again. It published the RSL Way document to remind fans and itself what its values are. It has highlighted the RSL Academy and its importance to the organization’s identity. Those two events alone indicate the club is ready to move on.
2. What is the state of the roster?
RSL still has its core intact in players like midfielders Albert Rusnák and Damir Kreilach, and defenders Aaron Herrera and Justen Glad. The club also recently signed midfielder Pablo Ruiz to a five-year extension, and has the aforementioned players on long-term deals.
But the team will get an influx of new blood in 2021. Former Real Monarchs players Noah Powder, Andrew Brody and Bode Davis will start life on the first team this season. Former U.S. Men’s National Team forward Rubio Rubin signed earlier this year, and another national team hopeful in Bobby Wood might be on his way to RSL as well.
Coach Freddy Juarez told The Salt Lake Tribune that some player announcements are coming and the club is working on acquiring others. He said his club needs “two or three more pieces.” The team has 27 of its 30 roster spots occupied, per MLS.
“We need those pieces. We do,” Juarez said. “They will make us a better team. They give us more depth. They bring more energy.”
The focus for RSL this season will be scoring more goals. If Wood joins Rubin on the roster, they along with Kreilach, Rusnák and Justin Meram could be enough to accomplish that and replace Corey Baird, who the team traded to LAFC.
Losing Nedum Onuoha to retirement was a blow for the team not just on defense, but in the locker room. Other than Glad and Marcelo Silva, the other two who can play that position are Erik Holt and, in a pinch, Nick Belser. The team could use some depth at that position.
3. Who are all those new coaches?
The most significant changes to RSL in 2021 arguably come on the bench. Juarez, who is entering his second season as an MLS head coach, set out to build a staff of assistants that were his own and not holdovers from past head coaches.
Gone are assistant Tyrone Marshall, set piece coach Matt Glaeser, goalkeeper coach Todd Hoffard and assistant Steffen Siebert. Marshall and Glaeser were initially retained before deciding to take their careers elsewhere.
In are assistant Pablo Mastroeni and goalkeeper coach Ignacio Hernandez. The club paid the Houston Dynamo $50,000 in general allocation money to pry Mastroeni from his contract there, and Hernandez comes from coaching at Cal Poly and was also at the RSL Academy from 2012 to 2015. The team is still looking to fill out the rest of the staff.
Juarez said he has an idea on how he wants to run RSL and felt that bringing in fresh voices would help him achieve that. He said new coaches in the locker room might be “critical” not only for the players, but himself as well so he doesn’t become too stagnant.
“We didn’t have huge turnover on players,” Juarez said. “We had some. But we need to continue to develop that team. And maybe at this point in time, I felt like we needed some new energy and voices and ideas.”
Juarez said he wanted to bring in people who would collaborate with him and also constantly bring positive energy.
“This thing gets tough,” Juarez said. “We spend a lot of time with these people within a staff — just as much or more than with our family. And you want to be with people that when you look at the clock and you say it’s 5 o’clock, you’re like, ‘Man that went quick.’ And I think that is provided when you care and respect and enjoy the people that you’re with every day.”
4. Who will wear the captain’s armband?
Juarez still hasn’t decided that. It seems to be an open competition, although it stands to reason that Kreilach or Rusnák would have the edge due to their veteran status on the team. Those two players have also worn the armband in the past when Kyle Beckerman, who retired this offseason, was subbed off or didn’t play.
Juarez said among the leaders on the team are Kreilach, Rusnák, Herrera, goalkeeper Zac MacMath and defender Donny Toia. Whoever ends up with it, Juarez wants the decision to happen by itself within the roster.
“Right now, it’s important that we we watch all the guys during preseason and see who the team organically goes [with],” Juarez said. “But we already know that just without a captain band, Damir, Albert, Aaron, Donny — those guys are captains in their own ways.”
But while there will certainly be a designated captain on RSL by the time the season starts on April 17, Juarez will handle communication in a more egalitarian way. He said he likes the idea of having multiple players have voices in the locker room and believes the team should have a leadership group that eventually funnels to the captain, who then relays a message to him.
Juarez said he had a group last year that couldn’t meet much due to COVID-19 protocols, and he has since been reading about different ways one can function. He added that the leadership group will be eclectic.
“I will definitely have a leadership group and it will be very diverse in age, in nationalities and in hierarchy [years in the league],” Juarez said. “I think everyone adds value to to the group.”
5. What style will RSL play?
Juarez played a 4-2-3-1 on offense and a 4-4-2 block on defense for much of the 2020 season. And due to the truncated schedule, there were times he changed formations based on who was available. He trotted out the 4-4-2 diamond once, and a 5-3-2 another time.
It’s unclear right now whether Juarez will do more of the same or totally surprise people in 2021. But after an unprecedented season where he tried to instill at least some of his own ideas in his first year as the head man, he just wants some forward progress.
“It’s difficult to instill a style of play within one year,” Juarez said. “So I thought we saw and did a lot of good things last year, and you would hope that we continue to mature in those, but also get better in some different aspects.”
Of course, Juarez said RSL needs to score more goals and allow less. But he liked the way his team served balls into the box. He liked that the team usually won the possession battle. However, Juarez said, maybe the team needs to be more unpredictable and attack down the middle of the field more often instead of almost exclusively on the wings. Maybe the quality of balls into the box needs to improve. Maybe he needs to direct more players to make runs into dangerous areas.
Some of that is more time under Juarez, and some of that is personnel.
“I think if we can add that on a consistent basis tactically, offensively, we become a sharper, better team,” Juarez said, “along with adding some players that are better in those phases that we’re talking about as well.”
Juarez said defense overall can always improve. On that front, one aspect he wants to emphasize this season is winning duels.
“I feel like if you can come out on the top end of duels a lot of the times, you at least show that you competed as a team,” Juarez said. “And I really want our group to embrace that aspect.”